the racie for gracie

Bill de Blasio’s Campaign Manager on Dante, Weiner, and What Joe Lhota Did That Was ‘Beneath Him’

Newly elected New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio waves to the crowd at his election night party on November 5, 2013 in New York City. De Blasio beat out Republican candidate Joe Lhota and will succeed Michael Bloomberg as the 109th mayor of New York City. He is the first Democratic mayor in 20 years.
Photo: Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Two days after Bill de Blasio coasted to a record-breaking victory in the race for mayor, we spoke to his campaign manager Bill Hyers — who had most recently served as Pennsylvania state director for President Obama’s reelection campaign — about what he learned, what surprised him, and how important that Dante ad really was.

What’s one thing you’ve learned in this campaign that you would take with you to the reelection campaign?
I think be true to your message and be forward-looking. That’s one thing that Bill — that the mayor-elect — was very conscious about the entire campaign. Be true to yourself, and always be thinking ahead and not looking backwards.

Are people generally overestimating or underestimating the importance of the Dante ad?
I think they’re overestimating the importance of the ad, and they’re underestimating Dante himself.

How are they underestimating him?
He is an amazing kid who is exceedingly bright and intelligent and is a fun person to be around, and peoples’ idea of him is an ad. Over the next four years, I hope they get to know him as a person, because he’s a really good kid.

But people are giving too much credit to the ad for De Blasio’s surge?
You know, there’s always things that people grab a hold of. If you look at that ad, it’s a great ad with our central message in it, if people want to give credit to that. But, you know, every campaign takes a lot of hard work — there’s not one thing that turns a campaign. But that ad certainly helped, and having a bright kid like Dante on your side always helps.

De Blasio won black and Hispanic voters by enormous margins. How much of that was owing to his message — specifically, on stop-and-frisk — and how much, do you think, was because of him having an interracial family?
Well, I think he didn’t present an interracial family as much as he presented his family. They’re a very close-knit family who love each other very much. He has two great kids and an exceedingly bright and intelligent wife whom he does everything with. There’s nothing he doesn’t do with his family, and I think that came across as genuine. So I think the combination of having a loving family that reflects a lot of what New York’s values are, and his message, and the fact that he was willing to address issues about stop-and-frisk in a real way. I think it’s probably a combination — a third, a third, a third.

Did you know at the beginning of the campaign that stop-and-frisk would be such a central issue?
We hoped it would! It’s what Bill believes, and it’s how he was going to run the campaign, and it seemed to resonate when you get out among the people. But again, it’s what Bill strongly believed and felt. When you’re in a campaign, the beginning issues and ending issues are usually different if you have someone who leads in a powerful way and makes a forceful and articulate argument. It was already a big issue coming into the campaign, and I think Bill’s leadership helped drive it to the forefront.

De Blasio’s rise in the polls actually began when the Weiner scandal broke and Weiner started to fall. Do you think De Blasio’s surge would have occurred if Weiner’s sexting self-immolation hadn’t occurred?
Bill’s rise in the polls actually, more than anything, timed with when the voters started paying attention. We always put 45 days [from the primary] on the board, and said this is when we’re going to start moving. The electorate in the middle of the summer — spring, early summer — your average voter has things to do in their life and does not think about politics 24/7, year-round. So we always put 45 days on the calendar to do it. We started seeing real movement about 43 days out, and it was a whole combination of things that mattered: his leadership on the hospital issue, his message, how much work he’d done. Certainly, I don’t think Anthony Weiner was nearly as big of a factor, but it did lead to a vacuum, where reporters wanted to replace that with something new, so I think that was helpful. But it was a combination of probably 50 different factors. Major ones were the Dante ad, hospitals, but I don’t want to discount all the other work of, you know, having policy ideas, having a policy book out, a campaign about inequality, talking about stop-and-frisk. Those were all major things that really took a long time to develop. It’s just a matter of everything coming together.

Weiner was ahead of De Blasio, in second place, for a while there, though. Did you have a plan to take him out if that continued?
He was never really in second place. Don’t be fooled by public polling. Public polls are a fascination with people, but his negatives were always much higher than his positives. He had no real growth; he had some name recognition. Our final poll before the Leathers scandal had him in fourth place, so we were not obsessed with Anthony Weiner. It was a very, quite frankly, annoying distraction for the voters of the city, because we wanted to talk about real issues, and people wanted to talk about the color of his pants, and in the New York Times he got six front-page stories before we got our first one. I mean, that’s annoying when you’re trying to get your message out, and he’s just running as, you know, colorful. But he was never going to mayor, he was never going to make the run-off.

We fundamentally understood that. We always were predicting that us and Bill Thompson would be the top two finishers, and it was pretty easy to see in any internal polling.

You never thought that Christine Quinn would make the run-off?
No, I did not think so, once the summer hit and we were actively planning against it. It was pretty easy to see: You had two candidates with pretty high negatives and no room to grow, and two candidates with very high positives and lots of room to grow. So we were planning for all scenarios, like you do in a campaign, but we all believed the most likely scenario would be us and Bill Thompson in a run-off.

Moving to the general, did anything surprise you about the Lhota campaign, how they ran their campaign?
No, not really. I mean, I think the one thing that did catch us — not off guard, but annoyed — was that ad that they put out. Because Joe Lhota is a fairly decent guy, you know. He’s worked hard, he’s done some good stuff, a lot of people know him in the community. He’s somebody who even said in primary debates that the one thing he would do different than Giuliani is that he thought Giuliani was perceived as divisive and he didn’t want to do that. So to run an ad that was so blatantly in that fashion — in my opinion, I think he was probably pushed to do it by people who wanted to get something moving. But I didn’t think that was in him. I met him several times. I don’t know him, but everything about his reputation is he’s a decent guy. Running an ad like that, I think was a little beneath him.

Was there anything Lhota could have done differently to make this race even slightly competitive?
I mean, look, there was a competitive race here. There were various candidates we had, and a liberal Democrat was going to get elected mayor. It was a very competitive election. The electorate is much, much different than it was the last time they elected a Republican, and a lot of things have changed. So we felt confident where we were. And an overwhelmingly Democratic city elected Bill as the Democratic nominee, overwhelmingly, and overwhelmingly like him. So [Lhota] would have had to get a lot of people who really really liked Bill de Blasio for many reasons. They liked his message; they liked him; they liked his family; they thought he’d be a fighter for them — all the reasons he got elected. Six weeks is not going to change impressions that took that long to build. And running a couple of nasty ads aren’t going to change them.

Q&A With De Blasio’s Campaign Manager